'Gun Control' Clouds
Liberals in Congress are in such a headlong rush to enact gun controls that
they are on the verge of signing off on a draconian juvenile crime bill
that would allow children as young as 13 to be locked up in prison with
Juvenile Crime Excess
The Senate on May 20 passed the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability
and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 by a bipartisan vote of 73-25. The bill had
some weak gun control provisions -- requirements of safety locks, background
checks for gun buyers at gun shows and pawnshops and restrictions on ammunition-clip
Even those relatively tepid measures were watered down in the House with
substitute HR 2037, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill.,
and Bill McCollum, R-Fla. But the House bill ups the ante on juvenile crime,
sending more of it to already overcrowded federal courts and prisons and
spending three quarters of new appropriations on more punishment rather
than prevention or rehabilitation. Call the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121,
and urge your representative to oppose it, gun control or no. If the House
already has voted, urge your senators to oppose the bill when it comes back
While the media focused on the gun control debate, there was little notice
of the other mischief the bill does:
* Creates a new federal death penalty provision, dealing with violence committed
by animal rights activists.
* Authorizes prayer on school grounds in memorial services for slain students
or faculty, and bars those who successfully challenge the use of prayer
in a public space from collecting the attorney fees that are due them.
* Requires states that release criminals from prison to pay the costs of
incarceration in other states where the ex-con commits a new crime.
* Prohibits recruitment for membership in street gangs, and enhances penalties
for gang members who are convicted of crimes. (Sound good? Well, consider
that the U.S. Attorney gets to decide what a "gang" is.)
* Requires federal agencies to consider whether "wanton and gratuitous
violence'' might be contained in films and television programs produced
with government assistance. That sets up censorship by bureaucrats.
* Eliminates the current requirement that states address disproportionate
confinement of juveniles from minority groups.
Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota were the only
Democratic senators with the courage and/or good sense to oppose the juvenile
crime bill. "Those who thought it was a vehicle for gun control or
censuring Hollywood in both cases got away from what the serious issue is,
which is how we help prevent juveniles from getting off on the wrong track,''
Among other things, the House bill would remove the discretion of whether
children are tried as juveniles from judges, who at least are supposed to
be impartial. Prosecutors would make that decision.
The Senate bill would allow children as young as 14 to be tried as adults.
The House bill replies, "Hey, make it 13."
In Florida, a state that gives its prosecutors wide discretion to try juveniles
as adults, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that a state prosecutor
recently charged as an adult a mentally disabled 15-year-old boy who stole
$2 from a special ed classmate for food. The boy was charged with strong-arm
robbery, which is punishable by 15 years in prison, and he spent four weeks
in an adult jail before he was freed on $5,000 bail awaiting trial. That's
the sort of discretion you get from publicity-hungry prosecutors. Judicial
oversight is a much-needed check on them.
It is worth noting that, congressional rhetoric notwithstanding, juvenile
crime has been on the decline the past few years. According to the Center
on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, between 1995 and 1997 there was a 21.3%
decrease in the number of arrests of persons under the age of 18.
The House bill also includes mandatory sentencing requirements for juveniles
-- the same sentencing requirements against which federal judges have protested.
All this comes 25 years after Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention Act to protect America's children after studies in the early
1970's found that children, who were kept in adult jails for crimes as trivial
as running away or shoplifting, often were subject to rape, sodomy, and
assault by both inmates and prison staff.
Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel, said the bill would allow 13-year-olds
to be funneled into the federal adult criminal system, but it provides no
guarantee that they will be protected from adult criminals in prison.
"Handing prosecutors the power to arbitrarily decide to send a 13-year-old
through the adult system will do nothing to prevent crime," said King.
"It will only bring us closer to a 'Wild West' system of justice, where
the prosecutors' whims are the law of the land."
The legislation would also enable schools, employers and others to view
juvenile crime records. "These records are closed now so rehabilitated
children are not punished for crimes like shoplifting for the rest of their
lives," King said. "This legislation makes it impossible for children
to put their pasts behind them and become productive members of society."
"By blocking any ability for children to reform themselves, the bill
would inevitably result in more hardened career criminals," said Laura
Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office. "Without any hope
of rehabilitation, even kids who receive 20-year sentences may emerge into
society as angry 33-year-old adults with no social skills, education or
prospects and more likely to commit another crime."
But hey, at least Congress will have passed a bill cracking down on juveniles
in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., massacre. They'll make it a little
more difficult to get a gun. (It will still be illegal for a teenager to
get one.) But they won't stop future Dylans and Erics from stealing their
parents' guns and shooting up their middle-class schools. They'll just send
more black, Hispanic and working-class white kids to hard-core prison instead
of juvenile rehabilitation.
We're glad the Kosovars can return to their homeland, from which they were
so brutally ejected this past spring. We just wish President Clinton had
not trashed our Constitution to help them out.
We believe the President violated the 1973 War Powers Act, if not Article
I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "Congress shall
have power to ... declare war ..."
Air strikes against Yugoslavia began on March 24. The House of Representatives
refused to give approval for the air war, deadlocking 213 to 213 on April
28. May 25 marked 60 days after President Clinton gave Congress official
notice -- the deadline to "terminate any use" of forces without
explicit authorization, under the War Powers Act. Few news media even noticed.
Bombing continued until June 10.
The U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign, which killed an estimated 5,000 soldiers
and civilians and wounded an estimated 10,000, may have been for a good
cause, but it was the international equivalent of vigilante justice.
Now Clinton has committed U.S. forces and resources to what is expected
to be a lengthy and expensive occupation of Kosovo and rebuilding the infrastructure
of the former Yugoslavia. Make no mistake: The intervention in the Balkans
will end up costing the United States billions of dollars that will come
at the expense of Social Security, Medicare, public education and other
social programs that already are embattled. Multinational corporations are
coveting the tens of billions of dollars worth of contracts to rebuild Kosovo
and to replace the depleted stocks of cruise missiles and "smart bombs"
that rained on Yugoslavia. Those contractors will be the only winners of
this undeclared and unconsecrated war. Congress will get the bill eventually.
And we will be expected to pay it. -- Jim Cullen
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